Once upon a time there was a mother who lived in a poorly made, uninsulated, drafty house. The small 4 room house was home to Mama, Grandma, Grandpa and 6 children. It was winter in this very cold land. The little house did not have any running water, so Mama would heat water in a pot on the stove so they could wash up. But hair washing was difficult, especially for the teens who had beautiful long hair. When the propane for the stove ran out, she would heat it on an electric hotplate. When the electricity was shut off, they had to use the water cold and hope it hadn’t frozen overnight. They didn’t have a toilet to use indoors, so they had to run out to the outhouse for that – which was unpleasant in the cold and could be difficult when blizzards left 10 foot snow drifts.
Mama tried to make everyone happy. She bought $2 DVD’s to entertain the children, which worked until the electricity got cut off. The electricity got cut off frequently because Mama was not able to pay the bill. But it wasn’t just the entertainment that suffered. Without electricity there was no way to run the electric space heater Mama had gotten to heat the poorly constructed little house after the propane ran out. She hadn’t had money for propane either.
Mama had run out of food yesterday. She had spent most of the day today calling around to try to find some person or organization who could give them some food. She had no money to pay for it, this being the end of the month. Her food ration stamps would not arrive for over a week. Mama worked tirelessly today to find the food because she had been told the phone would be disconnected tomorrow for non-payment. She knew she needed to find the food today. She also knew she had to find someone who would bring it to the little house since the car they owned was not working – it needed a new water pump and . . . yes, that’s right. There was no money to pay for the part or repair.
The food did arrive and the children rejoiced. Grandma and Grandpa looked at each other with sad eyes, knowing this story would be repeated again tomorrow.
After feeding the family by candlelight, Mama put the children to bed. She covered them with several layers of donated blankets, silently praying for those who had given them. Tears slipped out from behind her eyelids and she quickly wiped them away. She didn’t want the children to see her pain. They had enough of their own.
There is no happy ending to this bedtime story, as there usually is in a child’s book. Not yet, anyway.
My work is to try to change the story’s ending. I will do it as long as I have breath.
I often speak with people on Pine Ridge Reservation in the course of my day. I marvel at the strength they have to not only survive but also be happy in spite of the stories they tell me. I think it is their cultural values that allow them to do that. Unfortunately, the youngest generation have not all had the opportunity to grow up living the culture.
It is one thing to learn about the culture. It is another to live it. The youth today hear what their elders say, but they see what their parents do. They see the drug and alcohol abuse. They see the violence. They see the lack of respect that many in their parents’ generation show. So they are not living immersed in their culture even though they are surrounded by it.
The result: loss of hope. They see that they will not have jobs unless they abandon their family, leave home and live in a foreign world. They see what has happened to the adults who have been living that way. That is why so many young people on the rez are turning to suicide for escape from despair. So many have turned to it that they are calling it an epidemic. If it happened in Boston or Cleveland or Orlando or Plano or Boulder or Portland, it would make the news. But when it happens in Pine Ridge, SD no one tells you. It is more important for the national news media to tell you that a certain football player was fired.
That is one story I have heard from the young people.
Of course, I hear other stories too.
I heard a story about a single father this week. I did not ask him how he came to be a single dad of such young children yet – his son is 3 and his daughter is 1. I was more interested in how I could help him after the family was left homeless due to a fire that burned up their trailer home while he watched with the baby. Gratefully, his son was staying with a relative that night.
Now dad and the two babies have nothing. No clothing, no toys, no furniture, no bedding or blankets, nothing. They must start from scratch. We watch homes burn on the news and while we think it is sad, we know that the homeowner probably had insurance. But on the reservation, insurance is an unaffordable expense. There is not always enough money to pay the bills for propane (heat & cooking), electricity or food. Even KILI radio, the voice of the great Lakota nation, did not have insurance when the snow caved in their roof last year.
There are people who have responded to this dad generously after they heard his story. It’s the reason I tell the stories I hear.
I spoke to a woman who had a tragic story. She was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg. Her injuries caused her to be out of work for several months. There was no insurance to compensate her for her lost wages. She was supporting the family – herself, her spouse, an adult daughter and 7 grandchildren.
In the midst of that crisis, her spouse had an asthma attack. They have no car so she called the ambulance. However, due to road construction (government stimulus money) and few alternative routes, it took longer than expected for the ambulance to arrive. Her spouse stopped breathing. She administered CPR while they waited for the ambulance, but to no avail. Her spouse died in her arms while they waited for the ambulance.
When I spoke to her this week, she had just returned to work. But there were many past due bills. In her grief, she was also living with no propane (so no heat) and no electricity. Even having enough food for the family was difficult. While I could not ease her grief, I was able to arrange for some of the bills to be taken care of. The babies will not be cold for a while. They will be able to cook the food they have.
The saddest thing for me is that these stories are not unusual. They are typical. I get so many calls for propane and electric that I cannot count them. And usually I cannot help them because that is not the focus of the organization for which I work.
I keep writing these stories because most people in this country have no idea that there are people who live under these conditions in the USA. People are so caught up in their own acquisitiveness that they don’t look past their own daily lives. They can’t imagine living as the people on Pine Ridge Reservation, in the poorest county in the nation, must live their daily lives. No running water. No heat. No way to cook their food, if they have food.
I recently created a slide show video about my observations on visits to Pine Ridge rez. I put it up on YouTube. You can reach it by the link on this page. Or you can search YouTube for “My Passion is Pine Ridge.” I will continue to share the stories I hear. I will tell everyone I meet in one way or another. I will do this because I know that people will not abide it once they know.
Winter is coming. I pray that this fairy tale doesn’t come true – though I know it likely will.